Unfortunately, it seems that we, as a society, have entered into a Faustian deal. Yes, we have these amazing handheld marvels of the digital age—tablets and smartphones—miraculous glowing devices that connect people throughout the globe and can literally access the sum of all human knowledge in the palm of our hand.
But what is the price of all this future tech? The psyche and soul of an entire generation. The sad truth is that for the oh-so-satisfying ease, comfort and titillation of these jewels of the modern age, we’ve unwittingly thrown an entire generation under the virtual bus.
C’mon—aren’t you being a bit dramatic? you might ask. But look around you. Look at any restaurant that has families with kids; look at any place where kids and teens hang out—pizzerias, schoolyards, friends’ houses—what do you see?
The head-down, glassy-eyed zombification of kids whose faces are illuminated by glowing screens. Like the soulless, expressionless people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers or the zombies in The Waking Dead, one by one our young people have fallen victim to this digital plague.
—Nicholas Kardaras, Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction Is Hijacking Our Kids—And How to Break the Trance, pages 1–2
Is your face glowing?
While the aftereffects of America’s cherished—and perhaps most gluttonous—holiday may produce a ruddy complexion, that’s not the kind of glow we’re tackling this week, as you might have gleaned from the quip above.
Instead, let’s talk tech.
According to neuropsychologist and addiction expert Dr. Nicholas Kardaras, author of the newly released Glow Kids, the devices that derail our dinner conversations, brazenly intercept our face-to-face interactions, and daily devour hours of the average kid’s life are far from harmless entertainment gadgets and progressive educational tools. Quite the contrary,
what we do have is a growing mountain of evidence showing that there can be some very significant negative clinical and neurological effects on Glow Kids. Brain-imaging research is showing that glowing screens—like those of iPads—are as stimulating to the brain’s pleasure center and as able to increase levels of dopamine (the primary feel-good neurotransmitter) as much as sex does. This brain-orgasm effect is what makes screens so addictive for adults, but even more so for children with still-developing brains that just aren’t equipped to handle that level of stimulation.
What’s more, an ever-increasing amount of clinical research correlates screen tech with psychiatric disorders like ADHD, addiction, anxiety, depression, increased aggression and even psychosis. Perhaps most shocking of all, recent brain-imaging studies conclusively show that excessive screen exposure can neurologically damage a young person’s developing brain in the same way that cocaine addiction can.
That’s right—a kid’s brain on tech looks like a brain on drugs. (3–4)
Have you been peddling the equivalent of street drugs in your home? Not willingly, I suspect.
Yet to your child’s brain, that “educational” show or dinner-prep distraction may as well be crystal meth.
With Black Friday upon us, Cyber Monday fast approaching, and the tidal wave to consume hurtling us to Christmas, is your wish list—or better yet, your kids’—unwittingly bearing out the inconceivable: more drugs for all? Research shows that the ubiquitous screen
- unleashes addiction
- stymies neurological development
- imperils relationships
- throttles empathy
- and more
Neither pure diversion nor the unrivaled educator of the future, tech is decidedly nocuous. And Glow Kids has the science to back it up.
But why is a health practitioner, who normally shares tidbits about nutrition and such, tackling tech?
This issue of tech may be the most important for the health of ourselves and our young people. We all know a little about healthy food, whether we choose to heed that knowledge or not. But when it comes to tech, many of us have been shoveling junk food in innocent—or at least socially acceptable—bliss.
Wait! Before you hit delete and keep trolling your e-mails for more palatable fare…
This is not a curmudeonly jeremiad from some highfalutin Luddites—both Kardaras and I acknowledge the pivotal role of technology in modern life. It is rather a call to action, for the sake of our children.
If you read anything from us before Christmas, let this be it.
I hadn’t intended to post a book review this week. In fact, I was all set to share with you a gentle piece about inaugurating Advent and a peaceful postpartum. But that can wait.
After finishing in a day Kardaras’s page-turning compendium on the tragedy of tech gone rogue, I course-corrected. Because this topic can’t wait.
Glow Kids—those engrossed faces illuminated by screens—are multiplying. From video gamers to hypertexters and social media junkies, both boys and girls find their free time, socialization, pastimes, and even their identity engulfed by the fleeting facade of their gadgets and the virtual world behind them.
With the allure of a masterful wordsmith, Kardaras chronicles their plight. And he’s got the bona fides to elicit respect. With scientific studies, authoritative research, book and article references, policy findings, expert interviews, historical precedents, military data, clinical cases, and other quoted material peppering almost every page—in fact, you might tire of the endless parade of reference material, but he endeavors to satisfy the appetite of the data-hungry—this scientist-cum-journalist has a pulse not only on academia, research, and clinical practice but also on popular culture, everyday life, and that increasingly blurry line between reality and virtual reality. After all, he manages a high-end rehab facility—and is a recovering addict himself.
While addiction research and brain imaging can be fascinating, Kardaras doesn’t stop with the habit-forming effects of tech. He also addresses the slew of repercussions when age-inappropriate screens infiltrate the lives (and education) of our youth.
For example, screen time has been implicated in
- poorer communication skills
- fewer bonds with people
- decreased empathy
- diminished self-control
- heightened impatience and impulsivity
- dulled sensory acuity
- less attention, comprehension, retention, and ability to learn
- preferences for simulation over reality
- the illusion of real connection
- the perpetuation of tenuous and ultimately disastrous “friendships”
- desensitization and dehumanization
- increased cancer risk from electromagnetic fields
- neurological and psychiatric disorders
- dopamine shutdown prompting an addictive cycle
- massacre (yes, even those school shootings)
Unfortunate for video game aficionados, the gaming-as-developing-important-skills construct doesn’t hold water; Kardaras debunks that myth with research decidedly correlating virtual violence with escalating aggression. And unfortunate for the edupreneurs, content can’t trump the medium; educational programming doesn’t make a harmful vehicle OK. But surely a little Discovery Channel can’t hurt, right?
The hyperstimulating and rapid-fire nature of modern screen media—even nature-oriented media—makes kids impatient with real nature, even when they do get the opportunity to be exposed to it.
According to author and education professor Dr. Lowell Monke: “In my discussions with teachers and parents about the importance of nature in children’s lives, one of the most often expressed frustrations is that young people today typically show little patience when they are taken out to a pond or forest. Having been raised on Discovery Channel–type natural programs that compress hundreds of hours of footage into a half hour of exciting video, they expect to see the deer drinking, the fish jumping, the otters playing and the bears growling all at once and with no effort on their part.”
Expansive and slow-moving nature just can’t hold a candle to the whiz-bang of a video or a video game. Simply put, the digital world creates a space-time compression effect, reducing the big and slow-moving macro real world into a neat and condensed fast-moving digital screen experience. Dr. Monke puts it this way: “Real space is too big, real time is too slow to match the excitement the child experiences watching a video or playing a video game.” Who has the patience to read the whole book—nature—when you can get the CliffNotes via a game?
The developmental and educational benefit can only be found, however, in the richness of the real and full experience—not in the more hypnotic digital shortcut. Further, we must ask ourselves what is the educational benefit of something that kids find so compelling—so addicting—that they prefer it to the real thing? According to Monke: “When the simulation becomes preferable to the real, there arises a real question of the simulation’s true educational value.” (27, emphasis in original)
Yes, he has no qualms about taking on the elephant in the room: the charged question of technology and education. He devotes a whole chapter to it, with a provocative preface:
The story of technology in the classroom is a fascinating one.
As a story, it has all of the elements of a real page-turner: greed, corruption, betrayal. However, it’s more than just a story—it’s the real-life betrayal of our children by a combination of greed, incompetence, hubris and ego. In that sense, the story of tech in the classroom reads more like a Greek tragedy. (195–96, emphasis in original)
While rebutting the arguments in favor of computer-controlled learning, he also suggests that when it comes to education we might do well to take a leaf out of the book of society’s most revered digital gurus.
Ironically, the most tech-cautious parents are the people who invented our iCulture. People are shocked to find out that tech god Steve Jobs was a low-tech parent; in 2010, when a reporter suggested that his children must love the just-released iPad, he replied: “They haven’t used it. We limit how much technology our kids use at home.” In a September 10, 2014, New York Times article, his biographer Walter Isaacson revealed: “Every evening Steve made a point of having dinner at the big long table in their kitchen, discussing books and history and a variety of things. No one ever pulled out an iPad or computer.”
…Many tech execs and engineers in Silicon Valley put their kids in no-tech Waldorf Schools, according to an October 22, 2011, New York Times article. At the Waldorf School of the Peninsula in Los Altos, the majority of parents work at Google, Apple or Yahoo; yet these tech-savvy parents insist on no-tech classrooms precisely because they understand tech—and its dangers—better than most. (31, emphasis in original)
Even if alternative education is not an option or perhaps even a desire for the average American family, what you bring into your home, what you condone, what you relegate as minor issues of distraction, what you resign to fate because “everyone’s doing it,” what type of education you allow or choose, how you encourage your children to play and socialize and engage with life—these very much are options under your control. While it may not be easy swimming against the technological tide, Kardaras offers a sensible perspective:
If you really want a child to thrive and blossom, lose the screens for the first few years of their lives. During those key developmental periods, let them engage in creative play. Legos are always great, as they encourage creativity and the hand-eye coordination nurtures synaptic growth. Let them explore their surroundings and allow them opportunities to experience nature, either at a park or in the real deal. Activities like cooking and playing music also have been shown to help young children thrive developmentally. But most importantly, let them experience boredom; there is nothing healthier for a child than to learn how to use their own interior resources to work through the challenges of being bored. This then acts as the fertile ground for developing their powers of observation, cultivating patience and developing an active imagination—the most developmentally and neurosynaptically important skill that they can learn. Let them live without the glow while they’re kids—they’ll have plenty of time later on to deal with screens. (127, emphasis mine)
Indeed, they will, as we adults can attest. We’re often married to our devices—by work or necessity—and regardless of the good we do humanity with that work, perhaps we ought to scrutinize our own relationship with tech.
Kardaras advises that we ask ourselves key questions.
In a sense, we’ve all been chewing on that illusion-maintaining blue pill, blurring and confusing the digital world with a fully awakened, real existence. You might say, “Of course I know that the things on my screens aren’t ‘real’”—and that may be true. But are your devices hypnotizing you to the point that your actual flesh-and-blood life is suffering? Rather than tools, have your screens become your cage?
Since the focus of this book is screen effects on children, I’ll just leave the adult reader with this advice: if you answered yes to either of the above questions—is your personal life suffering because of your screen compulsion, or do you feel trapped by your devices—then try to imagine how a seven-year-old might struggle in a world surrounded by addicting screens and games designed by some of the smartest people on the planet to hook the poor kid.
A kid hooked by screen addiction is stuck in Plato’s illusory cave—or Neo’s blue-pilled Matrix. In this dehumanizing and sensory-overloading tech-filled world, millions are choosing the escape of the blue pill—they’re drawn to it like a moth to the flame. (236)
And at what cost? While overcommitted adults might think outsourcing their agendas to digital devices is a boon, the evidence bodes otherwise. Have we conceded some of our humanity in this endless quest to liberate our brains from the mundane? Unlike their compatriots of yesteryear, most adults today can’t even recall a few frequent phone numbers.
So what, you might say. Big deal, I can’t remember as many phone numbers as I used to, and I use my memory less because of my handy-dandy gadgets—what harm can that do?
Well, memory, like language, is a skill that requires practice and use, otherwise one’s memory abilities—in true use-it-or-lose-it fashion—begin to atrophy. (46)
Yes, our adult gray matter on too much tech suffers alongside our children’s. So is there any hope, any value in digital? Of course! But first and foremost, it must be age appropriate: according to visionary educator and author Joseph Chilton Pearce, “if you introduce the computer before the child’s thought processes are worked out, then you have a disaster in the making” (220).
Even then it must accompany a heightened level of discernment. Kardaras does acknowledge that there is a place for “digital vegetables”—researching an important topic, Skyping a friend, and creating music, for example. (See, I told you! This is very much a nutritional conversation.) But too many of our digital interactions—adults included—are feeding frenzies on “digital candy.” If you have trouble resisting the sweet stuff, then how much more might your kids?
This is a wake-up call not only for our youth but also for the parents, teachers, educators, administrators, policymakers, friends, and well-meaning but perhaps naive family members—the responsible adults in the lives of our children who often perpetuate the problem by setting a poor example.
I urge you as a fellow advocate for the next generation: buy the book, request it from your local library, or go to Barnes and Noble on your lunch break and read only the first chapter. Whatever you do, survey the research for yourself before blinding ticking off the electronics on this year’s wish lists—and letting the digital drugs infiltrate your hearth and home.
But even if you read nothing more than this post, let it impel you to rethink the way you do tech.
May your purchases this consumer season and your decisions about self-stewardship and parenting reflect your heart for flourishing generations to come.
And may our faces, and those of our children and posterity, glow not with the surreal haze of a virtual reality, in the addictive trance of a life-zapping screen, but with the ruddiness of healthy food, active play, outdoor engagement, and authentic social connections.